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Retreat on the Priesthood

The Priesthood and the Eucharist

Fr. John A. Hardon, S.J.

The priesthood in the Catholic Church is identified with many things, because over the centuries of the Church’s history there have been priests engaged in a bewildering variety of enterprises. There have been priests who were great preachers like John Chrysostom; great theologians like Thomas Aquinas; mystics like John of the Cross and Ignatius of Loyola. There have been priests who were scientists, explorers, poets and even artists. And looking over the roster of the great Jesuits in the last four centuries, it is unbelievable in what a variety of occupations the priests of the Society were involved.

But none of these professions identifies what is the principal reason for the priesthood. Moreover, in our day a priest may be engaged in any one or several different pursuits that can occupy most of his time: he can be pastor, teacher, counselor, writer, administrator, or social worker. He can be working in a Chancery or a publishing house, but the main reason he has been ordained is because of the Eucharist.

So true is this that if we would specify the heart of the priesthood we would have to say it is the Eucharist, the Eucharist as presence and the Eucharist as sacrifice. Each of these levels of the Holy Eucharist is totally dependent on the priesthood. Without the priesthood there is no Real Presence, nor Eucharistic Sacrifice. But what may be less obvious is that if the Real Presence and the Mass depend on the priest, the priest also depends on them. And I am not sure which dependence is more absolute.

Without the Eucharist the priesthood is doomed to failure and, as history by now sadly testifies, to extinction. You see, the priesthood has become extinct in many parts of the world where it had once gloriously flourished. That which the priests create they also require for their survival.

First then, the priest and the Real Presence. In the year 1079 A.D. a certain French priest by name, Berengarius was required to sign a solemn profession of faith in the Real Presence. His problem was that he was a theologian and as such he had difficulties, which is not surprising. But what was unfortunate was that, he began to talk, teach and write about these difficulties regarding the Real Presence. His problem could not have been more fundamental. How is it possible, he asked himself and his listeners and readers, for the same Jesus Christ to be at once in heaven and also on earth? He was on earth, so Berengarius said, before His death and even for a short time after His resurrection, and then He ascended into heaven. Truly He had been on earth but He went to heaven. Where then, he asked, is Christ? In heaven. Where can He also not be? He cannot also be on earth, was Berengarius’ conclusion.

I had this brought home to me very strongly about two years ago when I was asked to contribute an article on the Catholic doctrine on the Real Presence to a special issue of the Ecumenical Review, to coincide with the International Eucharistic Congress in Philadelphia. I was asked, after I wrote my article, if I would share it with a Baptist theologian counterpart. I said I would, provided that I could answer his reply. I wrote my article and sent it in; he wrote his. This nationally recognized Baptist theologian said that he respected my faith but could not understand how Christ can be both in heaven and on earth at the same time. My answer was very short: “Who said you can understand it? The point is, is it true?”

In answer to the error of Berengarius, a Council was called in Rome, presided over by Pope Saint Gregory VII. Berengarius was summoned and he was told to sign the following statement:

I believe in my heart and openly profess that the bread and wine placed upon the altar are, by the mystery of the sacred prayer and the words of the Redeemer, substantially changed into the true and life-giving flesh and blood of Jesus Christ our Lord, and that after the consecration, there is present the true body of Christ which was born of the Virgin and, offered up for the salvation of the world, hung on the cross and now sits at the right hand of the Father, and that there is present the true blood of Christ which flowed from his side. They are present not only by means of a sign and of the efficacy of the sacrament, but also in the vary reality and truth of the nature and substance.

This profession of faith in the Real Presence has been ever since the touchstone of Catholic orthodoxy. Those who believe this are Catholics; those who do not are not Catholics.

It was not coincidental that the Holy See had to exact this attestation of belief in the Real Presence from a priest of the eleventh century, or that this statement has been quoted in countless documents of Popes and Councils, because this is where the priest’s constant test of faith is to be found. I well know the act of faith that this requires; that act that I had to make the first time I consecrated the host and knelt down before what I believe was God in human form, brought down on the altar by the words that I, a sinner, had pronounced. I have struggled with too many priests or with theologians preparing for ordination, not to know that this is the crux of a priest’s faith.

A priest, therefore, makes the Real Presence possible and no one—no king, prince, genius, or the will of a thousand people or the combined efforts of a whole nation—can substitute for the power of a priest’s consecrated words. “This is my body…This is the chalice of my blood.”

As the Fathers of the Church do not hesitate to say, there is no less a miraculous change taking place on the altar than took place in the womb of Mary at the moment of the Incarnation. Before she pronounced her words there was no Christ on earth. The moment she did, He took dwelling in her body. The moment before the words of the priest are pronounced over the elements of bread and wine, there is just bread and wine. He pronounces the words, and then divine power changes the substance of bread and wine into the very living body and blood of the living God.

But having the power to make the Real Presence real is not the same as keeping alive his own faith in what except for him would not even exist on earth. The priest must sustain this faith in this same Real Presence. He has no choice. He must spend some time every day before the Blessed Sacrament. If he earnestly does, the more surely will his faith be strengthened and his effectiveness in carrying on Christ’s work among souls he increased. Depending on how constantly his faith is nourished at the feet of Christ whom he brought down on the altar, the more his faith will give faith to those who do not believe and strengthen the faith of the others whose faith may be weak.

No less than the Real Presence, so the Mass is impossible without the priest. In fact, it is only at Mass that the consecration takes place and bread and wine are changed into the body and blood of Christ. Yet we know that the Mass is not merely the Eucharistic Consecration. By the way, some people, through no fault of their own thinking, look upon the Sacrifice of the Mass as a kind of means to an end: we need the Mass to have the Real Presence. That’s true, but hardly adequate. The Mass is not only a means to give us Christ’s Presence; it is also Christ’s sacrifice.

No less than having carved in marble the clarity of the Real Presence, so the Church has lucidly defined what the Mass is. It is simply and unequivocally the sacrifice of Calvary repeated, reenacted, re-presented. The Mass reenacts Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. Jesus Christ really present in His human nature, therefore with a human will, is capable of offering Himself no less really now, than He did nineteen centuries ago, because the heart of sacrifice is in the will.

Christ’s willingness to die, His readiness to shed His blood, is no less real now, than it was when He actually died. As the Church tells us, the only reason He does not die is because being immortal and glorified He cannot die. But the fact that He now has an immortal body has not deprived Him of human free will. It is with that will that He re-offers Himself to His Father, not now to merit the grace which had been gained for us on Calvary, but to dispense the grace; to channel what had been gained; to distribute what had been won; to confer that for which He had died.

On Christ’s side, the Mass which the priest offers is, as the Church further tells us, unbloody. It is the same sacrifice because it is the same priest, Jesus and the same victim, Jesus. But no less than as the lips of the human priest make possible the Real Presence, so his words of offering Christ to His heavenly Father and separately consecrating bread and wine make the real sacrifice possible. But the one who is really making the sacrifice is Christ, through the instrumentality, as the Church’s doctrine tells us, of His human priest. So much for the priest and the making the holy real sacrifice possible.

But once again, no less than the Real Presence is to nourish the faith of the priest, so the real sacrifice of the Mass is to enable the priest to be a priest, who is one who sacrifices and sacrifices himself. A priest must live up to what his name signifies: one who surrendered himself completely as no one else on earth is expected to surrender.

The life of a priest should be a life of continual sacrifice. This means the sacrifice of his time for the people committed to his care. It is really not his time, it is theirs. It means to the sacrifice of his talents. As I’ve told many theologians, “The only reason you were studying all these long dreary years, is not for you—you’re not worth it—it’s for the people who will need even things you don’t think you need. That’s not the point. They need it.” This means a sacrifice of his preferences, conveniences, place of living and form of ministry; to be directed under obedience to that to which he is assigned and to the utmost of his human capacity, strengthened by the grace of God.

I admire priests who die working. Saint John Francis Regis died in the confessional. A fellow Jesuit died teaching class. My pastor died on the stage distributing prizes to graduates from the commercial high school in the parish. Beautiful! A priest is to totally spend himself for the souls that Christ entrusted to his care.

There is a grave shortage of vocations to the priesthood in many countries and in many dioceses in the United States. Among the reasons I would especially assign this one: The young men in whom there may be the first flowering of a priestly vocation have not been sufficiently inspired by the priests who entered their lives. The Church desperately needs priestly vocations, and she will get them on one condition: provided priests are what they are supposed to be, men who do not shrink from hard work, do not hesitate to undergo inconvenience and even pain; men whose one preoccupation is to save souls, to bring back sinners or to elevate the weak and the timid to sanctity; men who in the words of Saint Ignatius fight and ignore the wounds; who labor and ask for nothing except God’s love in return; in a word, priests who are not afraid of sacrifice; whose Mass is not only their liturgy but their life. For such priests we should pray, and beg the great High Priest to send such laborers into His harvest.

Conference transcription from a retreat that
Father Hardon gave in December, 1977 to the
Handmaids of the Precious Blood

Copyright © 1998 Inter Mirifica

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